The email was brief, just a sentence-long, and sent to the media shortly before 9 last night: “DEQ employees Donald van der Vaart and John Evans have been placed on investigatory leave.”
The statement was attributed to NC Department Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan and came from the agency’s communications director, Jamie Kritzer. It was prompted by an Policy Watch story yesterday that reported van der Vaart nor Evans, former top officials at DEQ, had been inexplicably absent for work and without a definite return date.
Van der Vaart and Evans have worked as section chiefs in the Division of Air Quality since the first quarter of this year. That’s when van der Vaart demoted himself and Evans– both political appointees under former Gov. Pat McCrory. to avoid being fired by the new administration.
No reason was given for their placement on leave, but both men had openly rebuked current leadership’s environmental stance by publishing an anti-regulatory op-ed in a national law journal; meanwhile van der Vaart accepted an appointment to the EPA’s revamped and anti-regulatory Science Advisory Board, which DEQ leadership also opposed.
According to the state’s online disciplinary handbook, investigative leave “temporarily removes an employee from work status” but does not constitute a disciplinary action. However, the information during the investigation may be the basis of disciplinary action.
Presumably then, van der Vaart, who earns more than $98,000 a year, and Evans, whose annual salary is nearly $93,000, are being paid while on investigative leave.
There are four reasons to place an employee on investigatory leave, according to the handbook,
- To investigate allegations of performance or conduct deficiencies that would constitute just cause for disciplinary action;
- To provide time within which to schedule and conduct a pre-disciplinary conference;
- To avoid disruption of the work place and/or to protect the safety of persons or property;
- To facilitate a management directed referral or fitness for duty evaluation to ensure the employee’s safety and the safety of others and to obtain medical information regarding the employee’s fitness to perform his or her essential job functions.
Investigatory leave can last no longer than 30 days without written approval of the State Human Resources Director, for a maximum of 60 days. At the end of the leave period, an agency must place an employee on active work status or take disciplinary action.